In the clear, dimly-lit waters of the open ocean, nearly all of the larger inhabitants utilize luminescent structures. While the functions of bioluminescence vary greatly, luminescent organs are used primarily as major weapons of offense and/or defense in most of these animals. The
bioluminescent systems used by oceanic organisms can be extremely sophisticated. For example, counterillumination systems have extremely complex physiological mechanisms, while luminescent flashes and clouds which may be used in a variety of ways involve highly complex behavioral mechanisms.
In these waters, a bright luminescent signal may easily be detected and localized at considerable distance and often from any direction. While a widely broadcast signal may be advantageous in attracting prey or mates, the vulnerable sender may also expose its precise location to a hungry onlooker.
Because luminescent displays are highly visible, and because the users lack the protection of solid objects (e.g., rocks for hiding behind) in the open ocean, nearly every luminescent display carries with it some degree of risk. As a result, bioluminescence must be used with caution. The factors
that shift the balance between advantage and disadvantage in a luminescent display are complex.
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